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December 13, 2011

Variables abound in cod study

The new, grim government head count of local cod — which could, at worst, essentially outlaw the iconic catch — is based on factors that, as with all things fish, are inexact at best.

Built-in variables for the measurement — in stark contrast to fishermen's reports over the past three years of waters teeming with cod — could add up to a conclusion that just isn't so, some scientists say.

For one, the boats used to catch the fish for the scientific model in this and the previous study were different in many key respects that could affect the results. Also, the landings used to extrapolate the number of fish in the sea were based on catches limited by new regulations.

On the other hand, numerous local day boat fishermen have complained over the past months that large trip boats with no official observers aboard had in effect been pillaging Stellwagen Bank. There are also reports from fishermen that unusually large amounts of cod spawn have been found in the bellies of herring.

The anomalous assessment of the health of the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine (Cape Cod north to Nova Scotia), based on a report released last week by the federal New England Fisheries Management Council, reverses the optimistic report from a benchmark study released in 2008.

If the results are reliable, it could mean the death rate of cod is five times the definition of overfishing, said Steve Cadrin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Woods Hole, who participated in the study.

A subcommittee of the fish council will develop a recommendation for consideration at its meeting next month.

"Do I believe the numbers? In a word, no," said David Goethal, a New Hampshire fisherman, biologist and member of the regional fisheries council.

"I'm in the midst of preparing for NOAA an analysis that contradicts their incredible numbers. For example," said Goethal, "I can document I caught more fish in a few days than they say exist."

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